Gym is Trenton Tolliver’s favorite class. But the 7-year-old is also a huge fan of the weekly Bible course at Princeton Primary, his public elementary school. He gets to play matching games about Bible stories and listen to classic tales. Noah and the Ark is a favorite. Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden, of course. And the story about how their son Cain killed his brother, Abel.
“That one was a little bit of a surprise,” Trenton said as he sat with his parents, Brett and Courtney Tolliver, one day this month watching his little sister’s soccer practice on a lush field in this small town in the mountains of southern West Virginia.
This spring, Bible classes such as Trenton’s are on the minds of many here in Mercer County. For decades, the county’s public schools have offered a weekly Bible class during the school day — 30 minutes at the elementary level and 45 minutes in middle school. Bible classes on school time are a rarity in public education, but here they are a long-standing tradition. The program is not mandatory, but almost every child in the district attends. And there is widespread support for the classes: Parents and community members help raise nearly $500,000 a year to pay for the Bible in the Schools program.
Now Bible in the Schools is facing a stiff legal challenge. Two county residents with school-age children argue in a lawsuit that the program violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the West Virginia constitution. Filed in January and amended last month by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the suit charges that the Bible class “advances and endorses one religion, improperly entangles public schools in religious affairs, and violates the personal consciences of nonreligious and non-Christian parents and students.”
Supporters are adamant that the weekly class is an elective meant to explore the history and literature of the Bible, not to promote religious belief.
“My experience with it has been very positive. I’ve never known of anyone who has been pressured or felt ostracized,” said the Rev. David W. Dockery, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Princeton. “Any time God’s word can be proclaimed is beneficial and is a good thing.”
Trenton’s parents also find it hard to see why there would be objections.
“I think it’s a great program mainly because it’s the only chance for some of these kids to even see the Bible,” said Brett Tolliver, 27. “More importantly, I don’t know who it harms. The kids aren’t forced to be there.”
Courtney Tolliver, 26, a teacher in the district, agrees.
“It’s not teaching religion, but it teaches character and respect and how important it is to tell the truth,” she said. “The kids love it and the ones who don’t participate aren’t made to feel left out.”
But the plaintiffs in the suit and their backers argue that the program’s popularity shouldn’t matter in the face of Supreme Court rulings such as McCollum v. Board of Education in 1948 that have banned public schools from initiating or sponsoring religious activity. The suit alleges that the lessons in the Mercer schools are similar to what a child would hear in Sunday school and that they advocate the Ten Commandments and treat stories in the Bible as historical fact.
The suit quotes from one lesson: “If all of the Israelites had chosen to follow the Ten Commandments, think of how safe and happy they would have been.” Another lesson asks students to imagine that humans and dinosaurs existed at the same time. It says: “So picture Adam being able to crawl up on the back of a dinosaur! He and Eve could have their own personal water slide! Wouldn’t that be so wild!”
The district declined a request to observe one of the classes.
Elizabeth Deal, who describes herself as agnostic, is one of the plaintiffs in the case. Her daughter attended elementary school in nearby Bluefield, but Deal kept her out of the Bible class. Even though the class was optional, Deal said there weren’t any alternative lessons or activities for those who opted out. Her daughter was told to sit in the computer lab for that half-hour and read a book.
Bypassing the class left her vulnerable to bullying. Deal said other students told her daughter that she was going to hell. One day a student saw her daughter reading a “Harry Potter” novel and told her, according to the mother: “You don’t need to be reading this. You need to be reading the Bible.”
Eventually Deal moved her daughter to a public school a few miles away in Virginia where there is no Bible class. She pays an out-of-state fee of several hundred dollars, but she no longer worries about her child being taunted.
Deal said she joined the suit because she believes strongly in the separation of church and state. “When something is wrong,” she said, “you have to stand up against it.”
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